In the southern heart of North Dakota, we may be witnessing the beginning of a national and international pan-Indian renewal of First Peoples, Indigenous Peoples, Native Americans. Anything that helps rebuild Indian pride, cultural confidence, and a firm and solid assertion of Native American rights is a good thing for all of us, for all Americans. It is past time to bring the Two Cultures into legal and cultural parity, and to end the long train of domination by the Recent Americans over the Original Americans.
My deep concern has two fronts. First, I have a premonition of violence and a tragic end to this conflict. A tragic end would mean the death of individuals–whether they are Native Americans, allies in solidarity with Native Americans, law enforcement officials, bystanders, or employees of the pipeline company. But it would also be tragic if this crisis escalates, by missteps on either side, until the National Guard or federal troops are called in to disperse the encampment. A troop-imposed end to the protest would set back white-Indian relations yet once again, at a time when we desperately need a new spirit of mutual respect and reconciliation in Indian Country. It would be the same old sad and imperial story–when local Indians get out of hand, call in the cavalry. After Wounded Knee (1890), former Pine Ridge agent Valentine McGillicuddy declared that he probably could have prevented the massacre had he still been serving on the reservation. He opposed federal troops. He argued, in fact, that the Lakota had a right–guaranteed under the US Constitution–to participate in the Ghost Dance religion, just as Methodists or Baptists have a right to engage in their religious activities. He believed the best way to “manage” the crisis was to let the Native Americans continue their encampment as long as it suited them. He believed that a plains winter was more likely to diminish the crisis than men with bullets and Hotchkiss guns.
We must not ratchet this thing up to violence. Even if some isolated bit of violence occurs–the work of a panicky individual (as in the death of Crazy Horse in 1877) or the work of a hothead (as in the assassination of Sitting Bull in 1890) on either side–everyone involved in this moment should vow to avoid any further escalation of violence, so that this crisis does not spin out of control. Meanwhile, the leaders of every stakeholder group (pipeline company, the Standing Rock Sioux (Lakota), pan-Indian gatherers, non-Indian allies of the protest, and all white government and law enforcement agencies) must do everything in their power to educate, inform, and restrain their constituencies. It would be better if the rhetoric from all quarters was civil rather than extreme.
The protest at Standing Rock could be the beginning of a new era in white-Indian relations, a new period of creative mutual curiosity, respect, dialogue, negotiation, and reconciliation on the Great Plains. We desperately need that. But it could equally be a tragic setback for Native America–in fact, for all of us.
Second, I very much hope that the protest movement remains focused. In my view, it is about three issues: 1) the siting of this pipeline so close to the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and its potential impact on downstream communities, including the Standing Rock Indian community. It’s a question of what appears to be cynical siting, a siting that expresses disdain and contempt for Indian lives. It’s a question of the legal and political processes by which this pipeline was sited in a location that makes it pass directly over the top of the Lakota nation. 2) Indian sovereignty. The non-Indian governments and their corporate friends appear to think the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux is a kind of pleasant fiction, sovereignty as “monopoly money,” a quaint notion that does not mean what it would mean if this were a dispute between the United States and (say) Canada. It is time that the United States treat Indian tribes with the respect that Chief Justice John Marshall insisted they deserve, and not as occupied nations that are permitted to talk about their sovereignty just so long as it does not impede non-Indian activities. This is the area, in my opinion, where my fellow non-Indians need the most enlightenment. 3) Transparency and respect. Even if it could be determined that the pipeline will be perfectly safe and secure, the Native American community deserves to be treated with extraordinary respect, because the Standing Rock Sioux are not just another county or another state, but another people, even in some respects another culture and civilization. However much we share material habits–consuming some of the same food, driving some of the same vehicles, watching the same popular culture, reading the same newspapers–we are two cultures that look at some very important issues in fundamentally different ways. “Development,” especially water development, means something quite different in Fort Yates from what it means in the offices of the Public Service Commission in Bismarck, North Dakota.
If you think basic mutual respect is not an issue, just listen to the coffee table talk about “what those Indians are up to down there.” I have heard that talk. Some of it is racist, but even where it is just about politics and policy, the conversations tend to discount Indian concerns; to accuse Native Americans of posturing, or (as always) of importing outside radicals); to discount the validity of the protest by looking at perceived social, domestic, and other tribal problems entirely unrelated to the issue at hand. Why is it that when Indians challenge non-Indian high-handedness, the response is invariably to find some unrelated reason to discount the seriousness of Indian perspectives, issues, and concerns?
If we could keep these three core issues in mind, and not get distracted, this crisis would be easier to resolve.
I worry that the fundamental issues may get lost in the morass of much less immediate and, to my mind, much less relevant issues. I do not think this movement should be about whether the carbon economy is evil or inherently exploitative. That’s an important debate, but this is not the arena for that debate, in my view. Nor should this be a forum for a general environmentalist critique of white culture, except insofar as it addresses the core issues that I have tried to outline above. The more of modernity’s “troubles” that the movement takes on, the more the core issues are likely to be pushed aside, the more diffuse the conversation becomes. To put it another way, there may be tens of thousands of people who feel sympathy with the Standing Rock Sioux in this crisis, but who are not ready to get drawn into a debate about whether the Bakken Oil Boom, for example, has been good or bad for North Dakota. Or whether there should be dams on America’s rivers.
I would hope we could keep this conversation focused on the issues that actually and immediately affect the Standing Rock Sioux – because these issues are of monumental and historical importance, and we must not duck or dilute or derail them. The great encampment on the Cannonball River rose to address specific issues of this pipeline on this location using this political process between these legal stakeholders. I would be sorry if the encampment took on the character of a Woodstock of cross-cultural discontent.
It’s not for me to say what Native Americans should do in this situation. I have respect for Chairman Archambault and his tribal council, and for the individuals who have sacrificed their time and resources to stand up against what they regard as an unjust political and industrial program. I speak only as an interested citizen of the Great Plains. I have written what I hope will happen, because I want this to be a step forward rather than a cultural and political catastrophe. The whole world is watching. This is not Birmingham 1963, but North Dakota 2016. Let’s kennel the dogs and condemn those who would turn them loose on their fellow Americans.